★★★★ / ★★★★
Leave it to director Steve McQueen to helm a heist film more interested in the people about to pull a job than the actual robbery itself. What results is an elegant, intelligent, character-driven work that commands the precision of high-end thrillers in which the viewer is dared not to blink in order to avoid missing a beat. Notice that the burglary unfolds for a mere five minutes and yet the overall experience is most satisfying. The reason is because seeing the theft is merely cherry on top. We already know that it must be done and how it will be done. And once it is done—I’d even go as far to say that even before it is done—we are more curious about how the characters will choose to move on with their lives.
The picture is filled to the brim with terrific character actors. The leader of the widows compelled to thievery is played by Viola Davis, doing so much and saying more than enough within the span of a few seconds in which the camera is fixated on her face. She need not say a word. Sometimes all she has to do is scream. Her silence, the anger in those eyes, the confusion, the frustration—and the depression—of being left with nothing can be felt with overwhelming clarity. And yet—her co-stars: Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo—shine on their own exactly because the screenplay by Gillian Flynn and Steve McQueen ensures that their characters have something important to do or say about grief and/or survival. It truly is an ensemble cast; everyone supports one another. Take away one performance and the final project is not as strong.
I admired how the director navigates through the chess pieces. There is a subplot about mayoral candidates (Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry) attempting to make deals and to pull off overt subterfuge. These players, too, are interesting. Although a heist film, I enjoyed that the material is able to broach the subjects of race, legacy, what power means—how to obtain it and how one plans to wield it. Intriguingly, the material is unconcerned about choosing sides. Both men are questionable and choosing the lesser of two evils is a herculean task. Even though these candidates are given less screen time than the widows, which is appropriate, they are memorable based on the actions they take on. Even a henchman (Daniel Kaluuya) can be fearsome.
The film also attempts to deliver great entertainment. Action scenes are well-executed and edited. They look and feel realistic; perhaps most importantly, we always get the impression as though something critical is at stake. The script touches upon professionalism and keeping emotions in check when performing a job. There is a cold detachment to the violence. It is all so matter-of-fact. And because it is this way, we get a sense that anything can happen, that maybe not all of the women are required to survive. We already know it will not have a happy ending. Their loved ones are dead. The best we can hope for is a bittersweet ending, but it feels out of reach.
“Widows” is based on Lynda La Plante’s crime series. It is amazing that the filmmakers manage to create a complicated yet believable world in a span of just above two hours, while at the same time making us wonder what might happen next for those who got what they wanted (or the opposite of what they had hoped for). Those looking for heist films that shatter conventions, look no further.